Jon Shenk's profile of Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected leader of the Republic of Maldives, "The Island President," opens today at New York's Film Forum, following a surge of press after Nasheed was forced to leave office following a coup d'etat by loyalists to his predecessor, dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Made before the tumultuous events of the past several weeks (he resigned February 7), "The Island President" follows Nasheed's quest as President to make his country (the lowest nation in the world, and therefore vulnerable to rising sea levels) the first to go carbon-neutral. Shenk, who also served as the film's cinematographer, tracks Nasheed's first year in office, leading up to the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009.
Indiewire caught up with Shenk in New York to discuss the making of "The Island President," whether he saw this dispiriting turn of events coming and why he didn't go back to shoot more following Nasheed's resignation.
How and when did you first become aware of Nasheed's efforts?
I read about Mohamed in October of 2008 when he won the first ever Democratic election for President in the Maldives. He just kind of jumped off the page at me because he was the first Democratic leader of a nation that was 100% Muslim, which at the time in '08 was very unusual. He stepped into office and immediately started saying these provocative and profoundly honest things about the environment.
I started following the story on the internet. Then in early '09, he made this commitment to make the Maldives carbon neutral. I thought, man this is just awesome. He was doing something for me, which I thought could come across in a film -- he was making climate change about people, about the human struggle. I thought, wait a minute, climate's been dealt with in films, but it always feel like a kind of medicine we need to take. There was a deadness about it.
In fact when we went for funding, several broadcasters said, "Oh, we can't do another film about climate change."
So I wanted to make a film about a person overcoming this task. In pitching to Nasheed, we realized we were asking for something insane: for the State to give a documentary crew access to his life and his world. To his credit, he's such a champion of transparency and good governance. He basically said let's do it.
I think at the time he didn't quite know what we needed (laughs).
You spent a full year and a half with him, correct?
We filmed for a year and ahalf, but we weren't there for the whole time, as much as I would haved loved to move to the Maldives. We did five trips. It was just a thrill. It's beautiful to get to know a country by getting to know its fledging democracy movement. It felt like you were watching history unfold before your eyes.
And also, to travel with Nasheed to these international climate meetings almost felt like being inside a James Bond movie. It's very intriguing to hear, "The meeting with China's set up. How are we going to play that?" It's almost like "The West Wing." You don't get to see that in truth because it's so delicate. But here was an opportunity to actually see the reality of it.
Your film doesn't give the sense that Nasheed was under this intense scrutiny and pressure following his victory. Were you surprised by the news of his forced resignation, or had you seen it coming having been with him for that long?
That's a great question. I kind of feel two ways about it. On one hand, we felt the shadow of the dictator.
Oh, yeah. When we first went there and we would meet out Maldivian contacts to talk about things that we wanted to film, often times we would ask questions and our answers would come in the form of whispers. The reason for that is that Gayoom, the dictator, had ruled with an iron fist. He used fear. People were scared that they could be arrested. They felt that Nasheed was an inspiring new hero for their country, but they also weren't confident that it would last. They had grown up in a country where there was one president for their entire lives. How could this young guy hold onto power after all that?
I always thought, gosh, why are you being so careful? Let's talk more openly. But in hindsight they were right to be scared. The police force still had a lot of people working fo Gayoom. They were loyalists to the dictator, probably because they were on the payroll of his supporters. Same with the military. The judiciary had never properly been reformed. Most of the judges in the Maldives were still appointees of the dictator. So you can imagine what Nasheed was up against.